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Dr Helen Bromhead, Consultant Anaesthetist

Royal Hampshire County Hospital, Winchester, UK

Dr Adrian Feeney, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist

Hampshire Partnership Foundation Trust, UK

Correspondence to


1. Lithium :
a. should be stopped 1 week preoperatively to avoid complications
b. rarely causes side effects within the therapeutic range
c. may cause hypothyroidism
d. commonly causes tremor

2. Clozapine:
a. commonly causes extrapyramidal side effects
b. is a traditional antipsychotic
c. causes seizures and neutropenia
d. does not cause weight gain

3. Concerning antipsychotic drugs:

a. Most drugs act at dopamine D1 receptors
b. Most drugs cause sedation
c. Newer atypical drugs are less likely to cause extra-pyramidal side effects
d. It is advisable to stop treatment before surgery

4. Neuroleptic malignant syndrome:

a. is associated with malignant hyperthermia
b. is treated with dantrolene
c. results in raised creatinine kinase
d. has a high mortality


Psychiatric illness is common, affecting up to 10% of the population, with around 1 % diagnosed with
a major psychiatric disorder. Many patients are prescribed long-term drug treatment, and the
anaesthetist must be aware of potential interactions with anaesthetic agents.

Antidepressant drugs have been discussed in a previous tutorial. The classes of drugs which will be
considered in this tutorial are mood stabilisers and antipsychotics. The use of tramadol in patients
taking psychiatric drugs will also be mentioned briefly.

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Mood stabilisers are used to treat bipolar affective disorders which have a lifetime incidence of 1% in
the UK. A manic or hypomanic episode is required for the diagnosis to be made. Some patients also
suffer depressive episodes. Mood stabilisers include lithium and anticonvulsant drugs such as
carbamazepine and sodium valproate. Mood stabilisers should not be stopped abruptly as there is a
significant risk of relapse.


Lithium is an inorganic ion. Its main therapeutic role is as a prophylactic agent in bipolar affective
disorder. Occasionally it is used to enhance antidepressant therapy in recurrent depression. It mimics
the action of sodium in the membranes of excitable cells and decreases the release of neurotransmitters.
It has a low therapeutic ratio and plasma levels should be maintained at 0.6-1.0 mmol/l. Lithium is
eliminated by the kidneys, and therefore if renal function is compromised or there is dehydration
lithium levels rise dramatically. Side effects are very common within the therapeutic range and increase
markedly above 1mmol/l. They include hand tremor, muscular weakness, nausea, polydipsia, and
polyuria. ECG changes may occur such as T wave inversion, but clinically important cardiac effects are
rare. Thyroid enlargement and hypothyroidism may also occur.

Lithium toxicity

Lithium toxicity occurs at >1.5mmol/l, and is exacerbated by hyponatraemia, dehydration, diuretics

and renal impairment. Features of toxicity include vomiting, lethargy or restlessness, thirst, polyuria,
ataxia and later hypokalaemia, renal failure, convulsions, coma and death.

The management of lithium poisoning is supportive, with correction of electrolyte imbalance and
convulsions. Haemodialysis is required if renal failure is present, which may need to be repeated as
tissue lithium enters the circulation.

Drug interactions with lithium

Thiazide diuretics reduce the clearance of lithium by the kidneys. Loop diuretics have a similar but
weaker effect. NSAIDs may increase lithium levels by up to 40%, which can result in toxicity. The
mechanism for this is not fully understood but it is thought to relate to the effect of NSAIDs on fluid

ACE inhibitors not only reduce the excretion of lithium but may also cause renal failure. Care is also
required when co-prescribing lithium and angiotensin 2 antagonists.

Anaesthetic implications of lithium therapy

Lithium does not need to be stopped for minor surgery; it has been suggested that it should be stopped
24 - 48 hours before major surgery but this is disputed. From a psychiatric perspective interruptions in
lithium therapy are bad for the patient since there is good evidence that they lead to a worse course of
affective disturbance than if the patient was left untreated. Lithium prolongs both depolarising and non
depolarising neuromuscular block, therefore a nerve stimulator should be used. It may also reduce
anaesthetic requirements as it blocks brain stem release of noradrenaline and dopamine. Drugs which
may exacerbate renal impairment should be used with caution, including NSAIDs which as mentioned
above may also increase lithium levels. Careful attention should be paid to fluid and electrolyte
balance. If discontinued, lithium should be restarted 24 hours post-op.

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Carbamazepine is an anticonvulsant which is used in the prophylaxis of bipolar affective disorder. It is

a second line treatment since it is proven to be less efficacous than lithium. It is also used to reduce
aggression and anger.

Carbamazepine causes dizziness, drowsiness, ataxia and nausea. It is a potent inducer of hepatic
enzymes, and thus reduces the plasma levels of many drugs including benzodiazepines, thyroxine,
theophylline, and oestrogens, It may cause a chronically low white cell count and in 1 in 20,000
patients this can develop into agranulocytocis or aplastic anaemia. Furthermore it can cause
derangement of liver enzymes (raised ALP and GGT) and drug-induced hepatitis. There is an increased
risk of hyponatraemia when carbamazepine is given with a diuretic. It is also teratogenic.

Sodium valproate

There are two forms of sodium valproate commonly used in psychiatry: sodium valproate (Epilim) and
semi-sodium valproate (Depakote). Sodium valproate is used both as a prophylactic agent in bipolar
affective disorder and to treat acute mania. It is generally well tolerated, but possible side effects
include nausea, gastric irritation, diarrhoea, weight gain, hyperammonaemia and thrombocytopenia. It
is also teratogenic.

Sodium valproate is highly protein bound and therefore displaces other protein bound drugs such as
warfarin, leading to increased therapeutic levels and possible toxicity. It undergoes hepatic
metabolism, therefore increased levels may occur when given with other drugs which are enzyme
inhibitors such as erythromycin and cimetidine.


Antipsychotic drugs are used in the treatment of psychoses such as schizophrenia and mania. They treat
the acute symptoms of hallucinations and delusions and in the case of schizophrenia are used
prophylactically often for long periods. Most drugs act by antagonism at the dopamine (D 2) receptors
in the central nervous system. They can be classified into two groups:

(1) Neuroleptic or typical antipsychotics (chlorpromazine, haloperidol, trifluoperazine) which have a

propensity to cause extrapyramidal side effects: acute dystonia, akathisia, parkinsonism and tardive

(2) Atypical antipsychotics (clozapine, olanzapine, respiridone, amisulpride, quetiapine and aripirazole)
which do not have a tendency to cause extrapyramidal side effects. They too act via D 2 receptor
blockade but also have effects on other receptors including histamine (H 1), serotonin (5-HT2),
acetylcholine (muscarinic) and alpha-adrenergic receptors. Clozapine causes seizures and neutropenia,
(the latter necessitating regular monitoring of the neutrophil count).

Adverse effects of antipsychotic drugs

Side effects from antipsychotic drugs are extremely common. In addition to those described above,
most drugs cause sedation due to blockade of central histamine H 1 and/or 1 receptors. Weight gain,
gynaecomastia and postural hypotension are also very common.

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Cardiac risk
Patients suffering from chronic schizophrenia have a high incidence of cardiovascular disease
associated with increased body weight, diabetes and smoking. In addition, antipsychotic drugs cause an
increased risk of sudden death due to changes in the electrical conduction within the myocardium.
Common ECG changes associated with antipsychotic drugs include prolongation of the QT and PR
intervals and T wave changes. QT prolongation is a marker for torsades de pointes.
Table 1 lists the relative incidence and/or severity of a number of side effects which increase
anaesthetic risk.

Table 1: Adverse effects of antipsychotic drugs

Drug Sedation Anti- Hypotension Prolonged Impaired Weight

cholinergic QT Glucose gain
interval Tolerance
Amisulpride - - - - - +
Aripirazole - +/- + - - +
Chlorpromazine +++ ++ +++ ++ ++ ++
Clozapine +++ +++ +++ + +++ +++
Flupentixol + ++ + + ?
Fluphenazine + ++ + + +
Haloperidol + + + + + +
Olanzapine ++ + + + +++ +++
Quetiapine ++ + ++ ++ + ++
Risperidone + + ++ + + ++
Sulpiride - - - + ?
Trifluoperazine + +/- + ? ++
Zuclopenthixol ++ ++ + ? ?

Neuroleptic malignant syndrome

This is an unusual idiosyncratic reaction to antipsychotic drugs, characterised by acute increase in body
temperature, muscle rigidity and autonomic disturbance (unstable blood pressure, sweating, salivation,
loss of sphincter control). Creatinine kinase and white cell count are usually raised. Mortality is up to
20%. Patients should be treated in ICU; dantrolene is used along with supportive treatment. Despite the
clinical similarities with malignant hyperthermia, there is no proven association between the two

Anaesthesia for patients taking antipsychotic drugs

Antipsychotic medication should be continued perioperatively, as abrupt withdrawal may result in

recurrence of psychotic symptoms. It may also increase the incidence of postoperative confusion,
which is high in those suffering with schizophrenia. Antipsychotic drugs potentiate the hypotensive and
sedative effects of general anaesthetic agents; therefore care is required with induction of anaesthesia.
Temperature regulation during anaesthesia may be impaired due to the effects of dopamine blockade
on the hypothalamus. Patients with schizophrenia appear to be less sensitive to post operative pain.
They have a higher than usual incidence of developing postoperative paralytic ileus, which is thought
to be due to sympathetic hyperactivity, and can be reduced by epidural analgesia. They also have
increased rates of infection due to immune suppression, and are at risk of water intoxication due to
hypersecretion of ADH, both effects thought to be a consequence of antipsychotic medication.
Increased mortality rates in the post operative period have also been shown in those on long term
antipsychotic treatment, attributable to a variety of causes, including cardiac complications, respiratory
arrest and complications after paralytic ileus.

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The use of tramadol in patients taking psychiatric medication is of particular interest as tramadol may
itself cause psychiatric symptoms: altered mood (elation or dysphoria) hallucinations, confusion, sleep
disturbance and nightmares. As mentioned in our previous article tramadol may precipitate the
serotonin syndrome when combined with antidepressant medication, which raise the level of this

When combined with antipsychotics, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors or tricyclic

antidepressants, tramadol reduces the seizure threshold.

Carbamazepine induces the metabolism of tramadol and therefore co-administration of these drugs
leads to a reduced efficacy of tramadol.




Mood stabilisers and antipsychotic drugs should be continued

throughout the perioperative period to avoid the risk of relapse.

Lithium has a low therapeutic index and high incidence of toxicity.

Patients taking lithium require care with fluids and electrolytes, and
avoidance of drugs which may cause renal failure.

Cardiac risk factors are increased in patients taking long term

antipsychotic drugs due to a combination of side effects and high
smoking levels in these patients.

Patients taking long term antipsychotics are at risk of increased

complications (including death) during and after surgery.

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Perioperative Management of Schizophrenic patients. Kudoh A. Anaesthesia and Analgesia 2005; 101:


Allman KG, Wilson IH. Oxford Handbook of Anaesthesia (2nd Edition). 2006.

Peck TE, Hill SA, Williams M. Pharmacology for Anaesthesia and Intensive Care (3rd Edition). 2008.

Taylor D, Paton C, Kerwin R. The Maudsley Prescribing Guidelines (9th Edition). 2007.

ATOTW 175 Psychiatric Drugs Part 2: Mood stabilisers And anti-psychotics 19/04/2010 Page 6 of 6